Magical Summers on Hydra with Leonard Cohen

by Carl Wiser

As modern muses go, few compare to Marianne Ihlen, a profound influence on Leonard Cohen. She and Cohen cohabitated throughout much of the '60s and early '70s, mostly on the Greek island of Hydra, where Cohen wrote many of his famous songs. Judy Scott came to the island in the summer of 1973, when Leonard and Marianne were on the outs. She got to know them well and became intimate with Marianne.

In the book Leonard, Marianne and Me: Magical Summers on Hydra, she writes about the creative crucible on the island and what it was like spending time with Cohen and Marianne in this primitive Eden. Much of it is a love story, but there are some great insights into the songs of Leonard Cohen that were influenced by the island and by Marianne. Here, Scott tells some of those stories, offering insights into "So Long, Marianne," "Bird On A Wire," and these lines from "Hallelujah":

She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You met Marianne after Leonard Cohen released the song about her, "So Long, Marianne." What were your impressions of her and how she related to the song?

Judy Scott: My first impression was of a lovely, tall, tanned blonde woman of about 35. I came to know her better.

She mentioned the song "So Long, Marianne" and told me it was originally titled "Come On, Marianne" but later Leonard changed it. She loved the song, even if it did evoke the evolving nature of their relationship.

When I visited her in Oslo she played the song on her small stereo, and looking out the window, she said to me, "The thing with Leonard is, he actually did what he set out to do. He succeeded where many others failed. It makes him almost inescapable in my life."

Songfacts: Which Leonard Cohen song do you feel was most influenced by his time on Hydra?

Scott: There are so many. But probably "Bird On A Wire" is the most directly influenced by the island itself.

One time when Marianne and I were in his studio, we were looking out the window at that wire, and Marianne told me that when they first lived on Hydra, there was no electricity on the island and everyone used kerosene lamps or candles. When they strung a wire across his studio window, Leonard said to Marianne, "We have to leave now, we have to find another island to live on."

She said he hated encroaching modernity. But as they were speaking, a bird came and perched on the wire. Marianne told me she said to him, "If a bird can get used to the wire, Leonard, you can get used to the wire." She told me that's why it was her favorite of all his songs, because she felt she had helped to create it.

Songfacts: What's your take on the song "Hallelujah"?

Scott: It might just be his greatest, most densely layered, most image-ridden, most mature song. And I discovered in reading some of the letters I had written to Marianne, which her estate very kindly returned to me (she kept all of her voluminous correspondence), I might just know the reference to one of the lyrics that has puzzled academics trying to parse all the different images in that song.

Marianne was giving me a haircut on Hydra back then and she told me that Leonard would never let her cut his hair and would always go to the Greek barber. She told me that Leonard had told her that when he was a child his mother insisted on cutting his hair. And as he got older and tried to protest, she would take one of his father's neckties and tie him to a chair in their kitchen and cut his hair. Then she told him that just like Samson in the Bible, he was completely in her power and had to do everything she told him to do. Marianne said she thought that was one reason he could never refuse a woman anything and also one reason he was always escaping relationships.

"Hallelujah" wasn't always ever-present. Cohen released the song in 1984 when he had grown obscure in America. Jennifer Warnes, who had been working with Cohen for years and is one of the voices on the "Hallelujah" chorus, helped bring his music to a new audience when she released an album of his songs called Famous Blue Raincoat in 1986. Warnes was a big name around this time thanks to her soundtrack blockbusters "Up Where We Belong" and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life."

Warnes, though, was not a fan of "Hallelujah" and didn't include it on Famous Blue Raincoat. "When it took off, I was kind of surprised, because I don't think it's one of his greatest songs," she said in a Songfacts interview. "I don't think it's as cohesive as his other songs are."
Leonard Cohen with Marianne's son, Axel, in Leonard's kitchen on Hydra in 1973Leonard Cohen with Marianne's son, Axel, in Leonard's kitchen on Hydra in 1973
Songfacts: Please describe what Hydra was like when you were there and what made it such a draw for creative types.

Scott: Ah, it was a really incredible and very unique place. No cars, no automated transport of any kind. Built around a yacht harbor on three tall hills. Renowned for having the purest air and clearest light. It attracted many artists and writers and musicians. There was a very active ex-pat community. It was profoundly peaceful and yet very energizing at the same time. A very beautiful and magical place.

Songfacts: Other than "So Long, Marianne," where else does Marianne's influence show up in Cohen's work?

Scott: He himself has said, "She was a muse to me and to others. She gave me many songs."

Certainly "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong," "Take This Longing," and on his last album (before passing), You Want It Darker, the song "Moving On" contains the lyrics:

And now you're gone, now you're gone
As if there ever was a you
Who broke the heart and made it new
Who's moving on? Who's kidding who?

Most believe that was the last one inspired by Marianne, who had just died.

Judy Scott in Hydra, 2006Judy Scott in Hydra, 2006
Songfacts: What music did you and the other folks on Hydra listen to?

Scott: In my book I list all the albums I was listening to in 1975 at the little house I rented on Hydra. They are pretty typical of what the ex-pats were listening to and they were property of the owner of the house I rented. They are:

Title - Artist
David Whiffen - David Whiffen
Elton John - Elton John (his first album)
Spirit In The Dark - Aretha Franklin
Songs From A Room - Leonard Cohen
Songs Of Love And Hate - Leonard Cohen
The Silver-Tongued Devil - Kris Kristofferson
Whales & Nightingales - Judy Collins
McCartney - Paul McCartney
Every Picture Tells A Story - Rod Stewart
In A Mellow Mood - The Temptations
Court And Spark - Joni Mitchell
Hair - American cast album
Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones
Candles In The Rain - Melanie
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme - Simon & Garfunkel
Evergreen, Vol. 2 - Stone Ponies
Also Sprach Zarathustra - Strauss
A Man And A Woman - movie soundtrack
Barbarella - movie soundtrack
Sweet Baby James - James Taylor
Scheherazade - Rimsky-Korsakov
New York Tendaberry - Laura Nyro
Goodbye and... - Tim Buckley
Star Sailor - Tim Buckley
Where Did Everyone Go? - Nat King Cole
Fire Music - Archie Shepp
Wiedersehen Mit Marlene - Marlene Dietrich
David's Album - Joan Baez

Marianne wasn't the only woman who inspired a Leonard Cohen song. His song "Suzanne," from his debut album, is about Suzanne Verdal, who fed him tea and oranges (#Songfact: It was actually Constant Comment tea). This is not the same Suzanne who had Cohen's two children, son Adam in 1972 and daughter Lorca in 1974. Cohen never married.
Songfacts: What's something you learned about Leonard Cohen that most people don't know about him?

Scott: That he continued his relationship with Marianne and her son, Axel, after becoming involved with Suzanne and after their first child, Adam, was born. And though that relationship changed that summer I was invited into their family, they always kept in touch.

When I last saw Leonard in person at his home here in Los Angeles in 2009, I told him that I had kept in touch with Marianne and he said, "Oh yes, so do I. We email a couple of times a year."

Leonard, Marianne, and Me: Magical Summers on Hydra is available on Amazon.

Leonard Cohen Songfacts entries
Interview with Melanie

Photos from the collection of Judy Scott

July 6, 2021

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